Center for Social Research

Leading Scholar of Religion and Sociology Visits Calvin!

February 26, 2007. 3:30 p.m. Meeter Center Lecture Hall Scholar Nancy Ammerman, Professor of Sociology of Religion at Boston University will be giving a lecture entitled “Doing Good in the World: How Congregations Make a Difference.” Dr. Ammerman’s studies over the last decade have been devoted to American religious congregations. She is the author of nearly a dozen books and is active in educating the public on matters of American religious life. Her books have focused on patterns in faith communities, conservative religious movements and the role of religion in American life. In 2005 she discussed the religion and American family in an interview with Kim Lawton. (read it here) In addition to her many scholarly endeavors, Dr. Ammerman was involved as an advisor in the U.S. government’s investigation of the confrontation with the Branch Davidians at Waco. She served on a panel of experts convened by the U.S Departments of Justice and Treasury and testified before the Judiciary Committee. She also spent time in Israel, lecturing under U.S. State Department sponsorship. To find out more about Dr. Ammerman and see a list of her publications, visit her website. Also, view a transcript of an interview she gave on American congregations.

Posted by Gwendolyn Einfeld on Monday, February 26, 2007 at 01:14 PM
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Environmentalism and the Economy

For anyone who is interested in environmentalism, especially issues of sustainability and energy resources, then come hear Fred Smith, founder and president of a free market public policy group called the Competitive Enterprise Institute, on Thursday, February 15, 2007 in SB 010 at 3:30 PM.  Fred Smith combines intellectual and strategic analysis of complex policy issues, and he does so with an informative and entertaining presentation style.  For more information on Smith and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, visit Fred Smith’s Bio

Professor Ken Piers will respond to Smith’s presentation, which will be followed by a Q & A session.  This dialogue is open to anyone with an interest in questions of sustainability. 

Posted by Nate Medeiros-Ward on Thursday, February 15, 2007 at 09:04 AM
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February 13, 2007 Lecture by Kevin Bales, President of Free the Slaves

The president of Free the Slaves and professor of sociology at Roehampton University will be giving a talk on his book, “Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy,” and the disturbing reality of modern slavery.  As an expert in the field of modern slavery, Bales has presented his scholarly work at many venues.  In 2000, Bales worked to produce the documentary, “Slavery: A Global Investigation,” which has won several awards, including the Peabody Award in 2000 and two Emmy Awards in 2002.  For more information on Bales’ work, please visit Free the Slaves and come to the Commons Lecture Hall on Tuesday, February 13, 2007 from 3:30 PM to 5:00 PM.

Posted by Nate Medeiros-Ward on Tuesday, February 13, 2007 at 05:04 PM
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Methods:  Survey Experiments and Resilience

Some meaty methodological advice on experimentation in surveys is found in the Winter 2007 issue of Political Analysis (the journal of the Methodology Section of the American Political Science Association). In “The Logic of the Survey Experiment Reexamined,” authors Gaines, Kuklinski and Quirk (2006, pages 1-20) offer an overview of the power of survey experiments to identify causal relationships, along with a bundle of caveats scholars should keep in mind when designing, conducting and interpreting survey experiments. (The article is available to the Calvin community through the publisher’s web site).

For example, Gaines et al review research showing that treatment effects are often very transitory, rendering suspect the applicability of experimental findings to real-world politics where “treatments” (such as campaign speeches, television ads and peer interactions) are experienced long before the outcome of interest (such as vote choice). The authors suggest that researchers consider measuring the impact of repeated treatments over time in panel study formats to discover whether treatment effects are transitory, durable, cumulative, and so forth.

The resilience-research theme reminds me of conversations with several colleagues, especially Calvin sociologist Kurt Ver Beek. Though he is not engaged in survey experiments, his studies of the effects of short-term missions lead him to grapple with the problem of resilient predispositions. Like “saplings” being trained by a gardener (a metaphor Kurt uses), participants in short-term missions seem to be only temporarily shaped by their experiences; after returning home, they rebound into their old straight-up position and remain unbent by their exposure to poverty and need. There are similar issues raised by the effects of educational efforts, anti-racism programs, elements of worship and other cultural “treatments” whose aim is to alter long-term behavior.

What does it take to transform a life or a community, to make a quantum leap from one stable state to another? It seems to me that social research on religion has something to offer many disciplines:  we need to link research on individual conversion and corporate revival to a general theory of change. This is not to say that social science can capture and explain the work of the Spirit; on the contrary, research is often best used to debunk deterministic theories and demonstrate the mere plausibility of the ineffable and transcendent.

Back, then, to the original topic of survey experimentation. One purpose of such experiments can be to document whether small changes in wording or question ordering dispose people to express more or less support for an idea or proposal. While the effect may be very transitory, such findings can open the door for practical communication strategies that capitalize on a momentary increase in openness to gain commitments to participate or listen to further efforts at education, persuasion and so on. From evangelism to epidemiology, it may take a miracle to achieve radical change. But it usually takes a disciplined strategy of communication and action to bring people to the place where miracles happen. Think of the Apostle Paul - “and how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Romans 10:14)

CSR has had some good experiences with random assignment of survey respondents to “treatment conditions” through our Inquisite web survey system. For example, we have randomized the order of respondents’ exposure to questions about gender in two studies in recent years. Findings from one internal Calvin study were remarkable, but cannot be published due to a lack of Internal Review Board approval; the other study is in a pilot phase and results are forthcoming. We are also working on a study in which respondents will be randomly assigned a proposed price for a service and asked how likely they are to pay that price; Gainey et al refer to this “random variation” approach in their first footnote. The result will provide much more informative pricing information than other question formats, most of which would allow respondents to wildly underestimate the cost of the proposed service.

If you’re doing social research, your project might benefit from some experimental strategies. Talk to CSR—we’ll keep the caveats in mind as we work with you!

Posted by Neil Carlson on Friday, January 12, 2007 at 09:37 AM
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Correlates of Congregational Growth, 2000-2005:  Vitality, Purpose, Drums, and Irreverent Joy

What has distinguished growing American congregations from their stagnant and dwindling cousins? Some tentative answers are found in a new report from Faith Communities Today:  a growing, youthful demographic setting, a multiethnic constituency, a “vital,” contemporary worship style, and a purposeful organizational disposition to grow and change. Drums and “joyful” worship often went with growth; worship described as “reverent,” unfortunately, did not often accompany numeric growth in weekly attendance (see pages 9 and 10 of the report).

Whether these recent trends are worthy of emulation is a theological and social matter the current report does not address directly. But scholars and laypeople of all stripes may find evidence to inform their perspectives. The report, covering many faiths and denominations, is based on nationwide data collected in 2005 by the Calvin College Center for Social Research.

About the data
The Faith Communities Today (FACT) research team has issued its first extended report on the 2005 FACT survey data. Authored by Kirk Hadaway of the Episcopal Church, the FACTs on Growth report notes the leading correlates (not necessarily causes!) of reported numeric growth in average attendance from 2000 to 2005.

The Center for Social Research participated in survey instrument design, implemented the design in print and on the web, built an online database of congregational contacts, collected survey data, and prepared the data for analysis, including collating and merging U.S. Census and Department of Education statistics into the data.

The complexity of joy, excitement, and reverence

    Figure 15 from page 9 of the report

Nestled in the report is an interesting nugget that should help nuance congregations’ responses to the study’s findings. What makes a congregation grow may depend heavily on how well its growth strategy fits its constituency; the correlates do not represent a prescription for growth, let alone a “one-size-fits-all” prescription. For example, author Hadaway notes on page 9 that congregations reporting “joyful” worship were significantly more likely to grow (see figure snapshot above), while the adjective “exciting” correlated with growth only for evangelical denominations and not for mainline congregations. “[E]xciting worship may seem to foreign or perhaps too evangelical” to mainline congregations, Hadaway writes. This kind of nuance might also explain the apparently negative association of “reverent” worship with growth found on page 10; though less reverent congregations were about twice as likely to grow as congregations reporting very reverent worship, thirty-one percent of very reverent congregations did grow. The culture of reverence may be a minority culture today, but it can still be associated with growth in many congregations.

Multivariate model identifies internal conflict as number-one growth killer

    Figure 13 from page 8 of the report

Hadaway reports that reverence remained a strong negative correlate of growth in multivariate models (see page 16), even after “controlling” for other factors such as location, faith tradition and initial size. But the number one growth-killer was the presence of internal conflict. He notes that numerous denomination-wide conflicts over sexuality issues probably portend continued decline in mainline congregations. The conflict issue raises a potential research question for future investigation:  is the price of conflict great enough that conflicted denominations should consider policies and programs aimed at amicable separation, as well as the usual reconciliation efforts?

Posted by Neil Carlson on Tuesday, December 19, 2006 at 12:20 PM
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